Friday, February 27, 2009

Ambivalent intelligent badness

If you happen to forget a screwdriver in the gorilla cage, the animals will hesitantly approach it, briefly sniff it, and subsequently ignore it.

Leave it in a chimp cage, and it will be used in vigorous display, thrown about, and forgotten.

But if you leave it in the orangutan cage, one of the animals will unobtrusively pick it up, hide it, and use it to let itself out when you’ve left for the day.

– Benjamin Beck, author of Animal Tool Behavior (quoted here).

If you've ever doubted that apes have minds like ours, especially the much more alien-looking orangutan, check out this story. Here's an animal that not only can figure out how to use the wrong tool for the job, but can have second thoughts about it once it's done. I don't know what could be more human.

NEW ORLEANS - Using only a stretched green T-shirt and powerful upper-body strength, a Sumatran orangutan named Berani escaped from his Audubon Zoo enclosure Friday -- for about 10 minutes.

Employing a level of cunning that could have come from a prison movie, the brownish-orange primate stretched the shirt, scaled a 10 1/2-foot wall to the top of the moat, wrapped the shirt around the "hot" electrical wires surrounding the exhibit and swung out about 12:45 p.m., zoo spokeswoman Sarah Burnette said.

Berani means "brave" in Bornean, Burnette said, but on Friday afternoon, it could have meant "reluctant."

"He seemed like he wanted to get back into the exhibit," Burnette said. "That's the way it is in zoos. . . . He jumped over the enclosure and jumped back in."

Berani, who didn't harm anyone, used a T-shirt that had been tossed into the enclosure as a toy for the 150-pound adolescent male and two female orangs, Blaze and Feliz....

Berani was "very congenial, not threatening," she said. "He wanted to explore a little bit and figured it was time to get back home because his zookeeper was yelling at him."

...The zoo also likely will adjust the mix of primate playthings.

"We gave them T-shirts every day," Burnette said. "Not anymore."

Read the whole article by John Pope at the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Photo from Wikipedia by Tom Low

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Bad boy bees and prevaricating plants probably deserve each other

In belated recognition of Darwin's 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species, which took place on February 12th, we take a moment to consider some recent research into the pollination of orchids, the subject of some of his important early research.

Some orchids lure bees to pollinate them by tricking them into thinking they're going to get lucky - the flower imitates both the appearance and smell of a female bee.

An additional kink has been revealed in recent research, reported in New Scientist:

Orchid lures bees with the promise of sex with strangers.

Swiss researchers have discovered that the pheronomes used by the orchids actually don't smell exactly like the females in the local population of bees.

"This was not at all what we expected. If the orchids thrive on imitating female bees, the match should be as perfect as possible", says Schiestl.

Unless, of course, the males like their girls just a little bit different...

And indeed, male bees have the hots for exotic perfume. Given the choice between a dummy infused with the pheromone cocktail produced by the girl bee next door and another one with the bouquet of a female from another population, the males visited the scent that was new to them 50% more often.

But orchid scent, with yet greater differences in the pheromone mix, was even more popular. In choice tests it attracted males up to five times as often as that of a local female.

Don't miss the NSFW (if your co-workers are insects) video.

And more than you probably need to know about Pollination through Pseudo-Copulation in Orchids here.

(Photo, of a different species of bee orchid, by Wikipedia user Ramin Nasika.)

Monday, February 23, 2009

This is how they thank us: ungrateful brown tree snakes cause blackouts and crash barbeques

Humans did the brown tree snake a big favor. Sometime in the 1940s, they were given a free ride to Guam, probably in military cargo.

There were no predators of snakes on Guam, and no native snakes on Guam except a tiny, blind, insect-eating creature, so harmless that everyone thought it was some kind of worm.

So the native wildlife had no idea what a snake was and that it might want to eat them. The brown tree snake had a free buffet of innocent, defenseless, wildlife. They proceeded to wipe out most of the delicious bird species, cute fruit bats,and colorful little lizards.

You'd think the brown tree snake would at least appreciate all that humans have done for it... but no.

Among other problems, they're constantly causing blackouts, as the US Geolological Survey explains:

Power lines, wooden poles, and guy wires are no greater challenge for these snakes than a tree or exterior wall of a building. Snakes often cause problems by climbing guy wires leading to power poles supporting transformers, distribution lines, and high-voltage transmission lines. When the snakes simultaneously touch live and grounded conductors, they create faults, short circuits, and electrical damages. This results in frequent losses of power to parts of Guam and even island-wide blackouts. Such power failures, brownouts, and electrical surges, occurring on average approximately one every three days, damage electrical appliances and interrupt all activities dependent on electrical power, including commerce, banking, air transportation, and medical services. Power outages caused by snakes have been a serious problem on Guam since 1978, and the incidence of snake-caused outages continues to cause significant problems. Records show that more than 1,600 snake-caused outages occurred from 1978-1997.

Attempts to control this problem include turning off one utility line identified as a major source of snake-caused faults. Since 1985, this line has been shut down from dusk to dawn, the hours when the snakes are most active.

The USGS quotes an estimate of $4 million per year for research and control of the brown tree snake - including searching outgoing aircraft for stowaways that might invade other islands - and that's not counting damages and losses from blackouts or wildlife and environmental problems.

And, adding insult to injury, now they're expecting humans to provide MORE food:

Having nearly depleted the bird populations on Guam, larger snakes have been found scavenging garbage and even sneaking in to steal a hamburger off the barbeque!

Read more at the wonderful USGS brown tree snake website. And in case you ever have a chance to get back at them, don't miss the recipes (scroll down here).

Friday, February 20, 2009

Butterflies trick ants into raising their young

Beauty, grace, and slick talk just a cover for bad parenting and deception: caterpillar noises fool ants into treating them like royalty.

SCIENCE NEWS - Ants of the species Myrmica schencki can be fooled into carrying certain caterpillars into the colony nurseries where the fakers enjoy full care and five-star dining, explains Jeremy Thomas of the University of Oxford in England. An interloper caterpillar gains most of its body mass while luxuriating in ant care, and then turns into a Maculinea rebeli butterfly....

When he and his colleagues played the caterpillar recordings to an ant colony, workers reacted as they do to queen scratchings. Most distinctive was what Thomas describes as on-guard attendance. Clustering around the speaker, worker ants stay motionless in a hunched-over posture with antennae out and jaws slightly open. Like an honor guard around a human queen, worker ants will maintain that pose for hours.

Queen-mimicry could explain the VIP treatment caterpillars receive in the ant colony. “Quite often they’re treated as superior beings,” Thomas says. In a crisis, worker ants rescue caterpillars before a regular ant brood. And in famine, workers will kill their own brood and feed it to the caterpillar.

Never mind all the good press butterflies get just because they're pretty,
this duck has the right idea how to treat them

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

More than enough fault to go around.

Neglectful parents, infanticidal lizards, probably they all say society is to blame.

BBC - We found the scene of the crime deep in the jungle: a gigantic compost heap with a hole dug in the top.

The mound was built by an incredible chicken-like creature, the scrub fowl... Inside this nest of rotting vegetation they lay their eggs. This also marks the end of their parental care.

Warmth from the decaying matter incubates the eggs until the young birds eventually hatch and instinctively dig themselves out of the mound to fend for themselves in the rainforest.

They never see their parents.

The mound, we discovered, had been dug out from the top and the eggs raided.

We set a camera trap in case the thief returned. Within a week, we had caught our robber on CCTV. It was a dragon-like monitor lizard.

Monitor lizards are the largest predators in the jungles of New Guinea.

Salvadores monitors are the longest lizards on Earth, growing to more than three metres (10ft) in length.

-Jonny Keeling, producer, Expedition New Guinea

The author thinks the birds are the victims here, but is that any way to raise offspring? It takes a village to have your children eaten by dragons, if you ask me.

Scrub fowl building nest by Flickr user librarianidol.

Monitor photo by Wikimedia user Ltshears.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Stoned locusts: like just being a plague isn't enough

Locusts, high on serotonin, succumb to peer pressure, attack in disguise.
BBC - Desert locusts are known to swarm by the billions, inflicting severe hardship on farmers in parts of Africa, China and other areas.

But the insects actually spend much of their life in a harmless, "solitary" phase.

When food runs short, they slowly become clustered together and enter their "gregarious" phase, culminating in an aggressive swarm.

Prior to swarming, the locusts undergo a series of dramatic physical changes - their body colour darkens and their muscles grow stronger...

(Scientists) triggered the gregarious behaviour by tickling the beasts' hind legs, to simulate the jostling they experience in a crowd.

They found that locusts behaving the most gregariously (in swarm-mode) had approximately three times more serotonin in their systems than their calm, solitary comrades...

"Serotonin profoundly influences how we humans behave and interact," said co-author Dr Swidbert Ott, from Cambridge University.

"So to find that the same chemical is what causes a normally shy, antisocial insect to gang up in huge groups is amazing."

It's a familiar story. "They were so quiet. Kept to themselves," shocked neighbors say...

(Photo from Wikimedia user ChriKo .)

Friday, February 13, 2009

As if eating poop wasn't bad enough

Beetles turn to murder for their meal... of dung

Science NOW Daily News - Deep in the Peruvian rainforest, one species of dung beetle has turned from scavenger to killer. Instead of feasting on feces--as all of its brethren do--the tiny insect tears millipedes in half and dines on their innards.

...Using infrared cameras, (Princeton University ecologist) Trond Larsen observed the 8-millimeter-long beetle wedging its serrated head between the millipede's segments, ultimately splitting its prey's body in two. Afterward, the beetle dismantles the rest of the millipede and eats it up. D. valgum can kill prey up to 13 times its own size thanks to subtle body adaptations, explains Larsen, including its wedged head and hind legs adapted to hold the millipede and drag it apart.

Those adaptations create the potential for a rapid explosion of new predatory dung beetle species, Larsen says. Indeed, after publishing his findings, he observed several more Deltochilum species feasting on millipedes.

It's a "pretty spectacular finding," says biologist Armin Moczek of Indiana University, Bloomington. But he points out that millipedes have a high proportion of feces inside them because they feed on rotting plants. So if the dung beetles are eating their guts, he speculates, they're essentially still eating dung.

Normal dung beetles are actually useful to the ecosystem, if disgusting, since they clean up what other animals leave behind. These guys don't even have that excuse.

(Photo from Wikimedia user Dewet.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Is this any way for deities to act?

Macaques run amuck in India.

More than 6,500 rhesus monkeys, Macaca mulatta, have roamed the megalopolis of Delhi in recent years. The gray-brown, pink-faced macaques - which stand at around one and a half feet, usually weigh 15 pounds or so, and can live for 25 years - reportedly have invaded homes and offices, swiping cell phones and sodas, biting children and slapping women. There are stories of them breaking into police stations, donning guns and holsters, and raiding hospitals, where they attack doctors and snatch Ivs from patients' arms to slurp the sugary liquid... Everyone knows the story of the monkey who allegedly mooched booze from a central-Delhi liquor store - Aristocrat vodka and McDowell's whiskey were his favorites.

...In India, devotees regularly feed monkeys in tribute to (the god) Hanuman. This teaches monkeys to associate people with food - and to swipe it when it isn't freely given. Imagine what would happen in, say, Alaska, if residents walked around handing out salmon to grizzlies. Now imagine people building temples to the grizzly god and spinning fantastic fables about His Ursineness.

Read the rest of this indepth report of bad behavior on both sides by James Vlahos at Outside magazine.

(Photo from Flickr user Jakhol. )

Monday, February 9, 2009

Bad Birds, British Isles division

Foolish locals encourage junk-food eating, delinquent seagull

BBC NEWS - A seagull has turned shoplifter by wandering into a shop and helping itself to crisps.

The bird walks into the RS McColl newsagents in Aberdeen when the door is open and makes off with cheese Doritos.

The seagull, nicknamed Sam, has now become so popular that locals have started paying for his crisps.

Shop assistant Sriaram Nagarajan said: "Everyone is amazed by the seagull. For some reason he only takes that one particular kind of crisps."

The bird first swooped in Aberdeen's Castlegate earlier this month and made off with the 55p crisps, and is now a regular.

Once outside, the crisps are ripped open and the seagull is joined by other birds.

Mr Nagarajan said: "He's got it down to a fine art. He waits until there are no customers around and I'm standing behind the till, then he raids the place... He's becoming a bit of a celebrity. Seagulls are usually not that popular but Sam is a star because he's so funny."

If you don't believe it, watch the video.

(Photo from BBC.)

Friday, February 6, 2009

Dirty old man lizard robbing the cradle

111-year-old tuatara becomes first-time father; older than mate by thirty years.
NEW ZEALAND, BBC - The keepers of Henry, a tuatara, had thought he was past his prime - especially after showing no interest in females during 40 years in captivity.

But he mated with 80-year-old Mildred last July and 11 of the eggs she produced have now hatched.

Henry's keepers have put his newfound vigour down to a recent operation to remove a tumour from his bottom.

Henry arrived at Southland Museum in the South Island city of Invercargill in 1970 and, his keepers say, soon became overweight and idle.

He was known for his foul temper and had a tendency to attack other tuatara - forcing the museum to keep him in solitary confinement for many years.

But since his operation, Museum tuatara curator Lindsay Hazley said he had had a "major personality transplant".

"I have done lots of eggs before but these are just special because they are Henry's," Mr Hazley told the Southland Times.

Earlier coverage here details Henry's "improved" mood:
Museum curator Lindsay Hazley told AFP news agency: "He bit the tail off his previous female companion twice. But since the operation his hormones have been raging... He's definitely up for it, he's become a real Jack the Lad since he lost his virginity," he said.

(Photo of Henry by Wikimedia user Knutschie.)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Possibly justifiable bad behavior

This blog doesn't usually take the side of the animal, but I can't help making an exception for this one.

Groundhog bites mayor who cut zoo funding
NY DAILY NEWS - Maybe it was revenge.

Last week, Mayor Bloomberg took a bite out of the Staten Island Zoo's budget.

Monday, the zoo's weather-predicting groundhog, Charles G. Hogg, took a bite out of Hizzoner.

"He got my finger pretty good," Bloomberg allowed, as he held the recalcitrant groundhog up in the air and declared spring on the way.

The Groundhog Day mayor-nipping came just three days after Bloomberg chomped 15% out of the zoo's budget, reducing it to $1.3 million from $1.6 million.

See video at the Staten Island Advance.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Animal Behaving Badly Action Figure

Visit Archie McPhee to get your very own Avenging Narwhal Playset:

The narwhal is an arctic-dwelling whale that has been called "the unicorn of the sea" due to its long pointy tusk. There is debate about the true purpose of this tusk, but finally the truth is revealed! The narwhal uses its tusk to impale the cute animals of the world, specifically baby seals, baby penguins and koalas.

Only $12.95!

(You can also get an Avenging Unicorn, but you'll have to start your own Mythical Animals Behaving Badly blog.)